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The Truth About Female Desire: It’s Base, Animalistic and Ravenous

A new book on women's sexuality turns everything we think we know on its head.
 
 
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There is a conspiracy theory at the heart of this book. Even to the most casual observer of human history, it isn’t news that women’s sexuality has been feared, suppressed and lied about. But “What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” by journalist Daniel Bergner uses groundbreaking sex research to show the ways in which our supposedly enlightened society still has female sexuality backward — completely, utterly, profoundly.

In accessible and entertaining prose, “What Do Women Want?” details everything from individual women’s fantasies to the search for a “female Viagra.” More important, though, it represents a complete paradigm shift. The book, which grew from a much-discussed New York Times Magazine cover story in 2009, reveals how gender stereotypes have shaped scientific research and blinded researchers to evidence of female lust and sexual initiation throughout the animal kingdom, including among humans. It reveals how society’s repression of female sexuality has reshaped women’s desires and sex lives.

Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality. As one researcher tells Bergner of all the restrictions put on female sexuality: “Those barriers are a testament to the power of the drive itself. It’s a pretty incredible testament. Because the drive must be so strong to override all of that.”

“Women’s desire — its inherent range and innate power — is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction,” he writes. “Despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.” In fact, he argues, “one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”

The implications are huge. As Bergner puts it: “What nascent truths will come into view, floating forward if these faiths continue to be cut apart?”

This book — how do I put this without sounding hyperbolic? This book should be read by e very woman on earth. It should be handed out to pubescent girls right alongside “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and be required course reading for Human Sexuality 101. It is a must-read for any person with even a remote erotic interest in the female gender. It deserves to be listed on bridal registries — gay and straight. It could single-spine-edly replace at least a quarter of the sexual self-help section and the world would be better for it. It is a revelation, a story of redemption. I laughed, I almost cried — with joy. I was turned on, even. You want a female Viagra? This book is as close as we have to it.

I spoke to Bergner by phone about everything from monkey porn to rape fantasies.

What are the main bits of wisdom about female sexuality that you took away from writing this book?

Well, I guess the first thing to say is how struck I was by the distance between reality and the fable that we’ve been taught most recently by evolutionary psychology, that is, that men are driven to spread their seed and women, by comparison, are more driven to find one good provider, and that, therefore, while men are very poorly suited to monogamy, women are much better suited to monogamy. But that just really doesn’t stand up when you look at the science. The science behind that is flimsy, circular. And the science, when you look at it clearly, that stands in opposition to that is actually fairly strong — still emergent, but fairly strong. And so, that was the first thing that was so striking to me.

 
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